Liberals Must Come to Grips With New Russia

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Russian liberalism is not just in crisis, politically speaking. It has ceased to exist. It is not represented in the parliament, it has disappeared as a focus of public debates, even among intellectuals, and its claims to be a credible and politically attractive ideology now seem vain if not preposterous. I use the term "Russian liberalism" as an umbrella concept embracing the political practices and mechanisms, both the neoliberal and social liberal types, which identified the Russian "exit from communism" with the establishment of the rule of law, political and ideological pluralism, the market economy and an openness to the West.

Neither the repressive nature of the present regime nor the innate hostility of the Russian "cultural tradition" toward liberalism can explain this calamity. These are pseudo-explanations that serve the country's liberals as pretexts for their own innocence. If liberalism is to be reborn in Russia, one must understand the political causes of its demise. Liberalism failed as an ideology in Russia in the wake of communism's collapse. Now liberals must free themselves from the burden of the Boris Yeltsin legacy -- its unabashed neoliberalism -- and confront the type of capitalism expressed by the present regime's "authoritarian capitalism."

Up to the end of the 1990s, the regime of authoritarian capitalism had not been consolidated. The future autocrats still needed the liberal intelligentsia as one of their props. So when Vladimir Putin took over as president, he was careful to preserve the semblance of the liberals' participation in politics, even co-opting some of them as "advisers," "experts" and functionaries of the regime. Those who were determined to put their liberal beliefs into practice were later ejected from their positions and the rest were assimilated into the rising and solidifying bureaucracy of authoritarian capitalism. The liberals' "moment of truth" arrived with the new century, when the regime realized that it could henceforth perpetuate itself without recourse to the liberal intelligentsia. The liberals were found politically redundant and the regime abandoned rather than persecuted them. On their own, the liberals could not survive politically. This is what predetermined the electoral failures in 2003 of parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.

The same liberals today castigate the regime, and with good reason. The absence of an independent judiciary, severe limitations of the freedom of the mass media, rampant corruption in all branches of bureaucracy and the systematic harassment of nearly all opposition are genuine ills. It is one thing, though, to articulate all these grievances and quite another to set out an attractive and politically mobilizing ideology. Russia's liberals have to send forth a message that resonates with the broader public, and this resonance can't just be some sort of rehearsal of people's "superstitions." It means coming up with a compelling alternative.

The burial of Yeltsin's democracy may have passed generally unnoticed, but the benefits the people have received from the Putin epoch are clearly visible. They can't be measured exclusively in terms of material advantage, but no less important is the fact that social life in Russia has ceased to be chaotic, and political life is no longer insultingly grotesque, even though it has become boring. Order has appeared as a buzzword of the day -- with all its conservative overtones. Order is by no means an ultimate political good, but it is an indispensable prerequisite of all political progress and is appreciated as such. But it is doubtful that for many Russians Putin's regime has any intrinsic value. For them, it is nevertheless better than the unpredictability and buffoonery that was so typical of the Yeltsin epoch. This rational preference can't be ignored or misinterpreted, but it condemns Russian's liberals to a state of political nonexistence. Russians will only stand up in support of a different kind of democracy, providing it offers a tangible social content and has a bearing on their everyday lives.

It would also be unfair to the Putin epoch to turn a blind eye to the continuity it brought with what preceded it. This continuity saw a maturing of the type of capitalism introduced back in 1992. During the Putin epoch, it has rid itself of the extravagances and irregularities of its early years, when it was the public who were the most painfully affected, but despite that it has retained its oppressive, corporatist, oligarchic and profoundly unjust characteristics. The gap between Russia's rich and the poor has increased during the Putin years and is now exorbitantly wide. So although there is continuity, it is one that has preserved the symbiosis of property and power even though its institutional format has changed. Under Yeltsin, it saw the privatization of political power by several oligopolies, which in its purest form manifested itself in the "regime of seven banks," or semibankirshchina, that ensured the president's re-election in 1996 on condition that he should forfeit his "sovereign" power. Under Putin, this bargain was reversed. The clans controlling the upper echelons of the state acquired control over the main economic resources.

For the majority of Russians, these changes have proved to be important. State-based authority tends to be more sensitive to their sufferings than do the private sector's capitalist oligarchs. Russia's skyrocketing oil and gas revenues since the turn of the century have made policies for sharing out the country's newly acquired wealth financially possible. The regime has thus been able to reinforce its power.

If the opposition liberals want to escape from their confinement to the political salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg, they must come to grips with the country's new political and economic realities. They must disclose the present system's inherent tensions, and they must address actual grievances by proposing feasible and popular political courses of action. It is not enough to recycle the mantra of human rights violations because grassroots actions are required. Russia's liberals might find it worthwhile to begin with what former Czech President Vaclav Havel dubbed "small-scale work" when discussing how communism in the Soviet bloc could be resisted. It was a strategy of very concrete small deeds which although seemingly unambitious politically enhanced an alternative public morality, promoted independent networks of cooperation and steeped the reform movement's would-be leaders in a realistic and nonelitist democratic culture.

In Russia, the likelihood of such a development would seem meager unless a severe economic crisis were to undercut the stability of Putin's authoritarian capitalism. But do not human dedication and tenacity occasionally change the flow of history? After all, before 1989 very few people took Havel for a clairvoyant.

Boris Kapustin is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a visiting professor at Yale University. An expanded version of this comment will appear in the autumn issue of Europe's World (